On the Menu: Lighten up with spring fruits, veggies

With the arrival of spring, the desire for hearty winter dishes disappears along with winter coats and boots. We may be craving spring salads, but the local growing season will take a few months to catch up to our yearning for basil, corn and strawberries.

Whether you're devoted to a 100-mile diet or thrilled to find tomatoes in supermarkets year-round, there are plenty of ways to start putting fresher, lighter meals on the table. A number of food-focused professionals offered up some of their favorite ingredients coming this spring and summer as well as some tips for lightening up our diets.

Local bounty

Mt. Lebanon resident David Eson founded Isidore Foods in 2006. Inspired by Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs, Isidore Foods contracts with dozens of local farms (all within a 175-mile radius) to bring a consistent supply of local produce, meats, dairy and more to his subscribers.

"This is the hardest part of the year," said Mr. Eson, because people start to crave fruits and vegetables, but only storage foods such as potatoes and apples and a small number of greenhouse items, such as spinach, baby kale and arugula, are available locally.

But all that deprivation makes people all the more excited about the first fresh local vegetables of the year.

Asparagus: "The king of spring is asparagus," said Mr. Eson, who knows that people are thrilled when they open their subscription boxes and get the first asparagus of the season.

Ramps: Often ramps are the first truly local products to appear on restaurant menus in Pittsburgh. In produce boxes, "they were somewhat divisive," said Mr. Eson, "because [they are] something some people love and some people hate."

Know your nutrients

Carole Ortenzo spent 25 years in the U.S. military, where she became a board-certified general surgeon. During that time, Ms. Ortenzo became more aware of the importance of preventive medicine.

After leaving the service, she pursued that passion united with her love of food and cooking. Today she's a personal chef and cooking teacher who specializes in preparing organic foods at her commercial kitchen in McMurray.

Quinoa: Pronounced "keen-wah," this whole grain is a complete protein, meaning it contains all eight essential amino acids. Ms. Ortenzo also loves the grain for its versatility. "It can be mixed into soups or stews. ... It can be cooled, mixed with vegetables of choice, and seasoned with your favorite dressing to make a quinoa salad. It can be used to stuff peppers and make puddings. It can also be served either hot or cold with milk as a breakfast item."

Kale: "The people I cook for like a lot of greens in their food because of nutritional value," she said. "Because kale is rich in both vitamin C and calcium, it is an exceptional food for optimizing bone health." Kale also has a higher yield than other more tender greens, which tend to collapse when cooked. She suggests adding kale to quiche, casseroles and summer soups.

Fridge friendly

When Chris Anthony quit playing sports in college, she gained 60 pounds. It took her years to figure out how to lose weight and keep it off, but by the time she did, she discovered a passion for helping others get control of their diets and exercise routines. So she quit her job as a public school art teacher and started teaching people about food and exercise. Food is an integral part of Ms. Anthony's fitness training program. "I personally take my clients grocery shopping," she said, and she has developed a repertoire of cooking tips and easy recipes to help motivate permanent change.

Snack well: "If it looks appealing, it is appealing," says Ms. Anthony, who tells her clients to designate a shelf on the fridge and keep it filled with healthy vegetables to eat as snacks or transform quickly into meals. "Keep cut peppers, cleaned and cut asparagus, zucchini and squash. ... Put them in Ziploc bags or put them in glass containers."

Naturally sweet: Fruit can be a great way to satisfy cravings for sweets. Ms. Anthony suggests using strawberries, raspberries or melon as a base for salad dressing, blending the fruit with a little Dijon mustard and balsamic vinegar. She also likes to grill plums and mangoes and then put them on top of arugula.

Boost Flavor

Jennifer Iserloh grew up cooking with her grandmother on Neville Island, but it took her years to learn that she could love food and eat well without eating too much. She specializes in creating healthful versions of her favorite comfort foods by swapping ingredients and adding lots of vegetables. Her first book, "Secrets of a Skinny Chef" (Rodale, $19.99), came out this month.

Herbs: Herbs "add a spark of flavor," said Ms. Iserloh, and flavor is the secret to enjoying healthful, low-calorie food. "You don't have to be shy with herbs," she said. If you're making a pasta dish, "halve the pasta and toss in diced zucchini, carrots, whatever's fresh that day and toss in a big handful of fresh basil or even parsley."

Salsas: Creative salsas add a lot of flavor without a lot of calories. Ms. Iserloh likes to use them as a topping for meat or fish, or even a salad dressing. "I have this salsa that I do with black cured olives, grapefruit and avocado, and if you just make a piece of chicken and put that on top, that's a great entertaining dish." For baked fish, Ms. Iserloh suggested chopping up fresh tomato, orange, poblano chiles and red onion.

The 50/50 rule: "Make half your meal vegetable based" is a rule that Ms. Iserloh returns to again and again. To lighten up dinner, she suggests making 50 percent of the dish you wanted to make then substituting vegetables for the other half. Ms. Iserloh loves pizza, but when she eats it, she'll toss some fresh arugula with a little drizzle of olive oil, some basil and lemon juice, then she'll put the salad right on top.

"Even if you're still enjoying winter comfort foods. If you're making a taco, go ahead and grate in a carrot. If you love asparagus, toss that with your onion and saute it before you add ground turkey," she suggested. "Adding fresh vegetables to any meal is going to lighten them considerably."

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman . First Published March 28, 2010 4:00 AM


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